The Key to Effective Leader Board Design? Frogs – Not Tadpoles

One of the staples to any Gamified System is the now ubiquitous Leader board. Competition is a primary motivator in any game design with the objective of motivating players to complete objectives. Leader boards can either be a valuable tool in  tracking player progression and overall ‘desire to participate’ or a mechanic that undermines the entire structure of your design ( we all remember the Tumblarity Fiasco).

tumbularity sucks

One of my personal preferences when it comes to the design and implementation of  leader boards in IamP’s products is to always keep in mind the ‘Frog Pond Effect’.

A few years ago researchers at the University of Ohio looked into the effect a leader board position has on the self esteem of a player in a system employing one. It was not a study primarily focused on either Games or Gamification but any system that uses a system of player ranking. They soon realized something terrifically important:

“The way we perceive our efforts depends heavily not only on our position on the leader board itself but perhaps just as importantly the group to whom we are compared to”

Just ponder that for a moment: Ranking high in one of the groups in a lower tier generates more self esteem than ranking lower in a higher tier group. In other words Players feel a whole lot better when, despite being below average in the overall rankings, they rank high within a group of fellow players who perform at a same or lower level.

Group Work

Imagine you’ve just started investing some time in a brand new game. You’ve completed some challenges, smashed through a few levels and cleared a few Boss levels along the way. You’re riding high on your performance and you head on over to the Player leader board to check your performance and guess what: You’re only ranked 38760 out of 40000 other players. Not exactly the number that matches your winning mood but you’ve just started playing so it’s only a reflection of your relatively short game time.

So you put the hours in, completing challenges and unlocking content and being the general allround kick ass player you are. Riding high on your many victories you check the leader board, confident that with the time and effort invested you’ve shot way up the Rankings only to discover you’re now only  38690 of out 40000. To call that realization disappointing would be an understatement. It’s at that point I would probably start questioning my ability to ever reach the upper echelons, never mind the loss of enthusiasm and self doubt that sort of experience engenders.

angry gamerSource

Talk about a clear example of Failure in User Retention.

The Psychology at work here is of course Social Comparison: We as a species naturally tend towards evaluating our performance against our peers. If your peer group as a whole is outperforming you or rendering any progress you make totally insignificant we’re looking at a loss of self esteem and the unwillingness to even bother part. After all: What’s the motivation to do so?

There’s a simple way to make sure this never happens: Always ensure that players rank high on a Leader board. Notice I said ‘A leader board’ and not ‘The leader board’. As those Ohio Researchers pointed out the growth of self esteem occurs even if you’re the best of the ‘Worst’.

I’m not saying you design a system that ensures success . I’m saying steal a page from Sports. It’s why the world over we have Leagues, Pools, Specific competitions and every type and scale of Leader board in every competitive sport there is across the Globe.

I myself play Baseball in my spare time. Me and my team are in lowest Leagues in the National Rankings but we’re Champions in our Bracket for 2015. Looking at our overall performance (compared to National statistics) our performance is ‘weak’ to say the least. For us however our Bracket domination makes us feel like we’re the best of the best there is. It’s about perspective and social comparison and right now my team feels like we’re King of the Ring.

When it comes to designing Leader boards take a little inspiration from Sports and make sure everyone has the opportunity to not only be a winner but has the mechanisms and support in place to become one. You want your players to feel like they’re making progress, achieving their goals and evaluating themselves in the context of social comparison in the correct context.

Don’t build a single ‘leader board pond’ where only a few players get to be Big Toads in a pool of disappointed tadpoles.

Build a system that gives everyone a chance to not only become but actually feel like the Big Bad Toad’s they naturally are.


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